Seogwipo, South Korea — China held back from joining the chorus of nations condemning North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship, making quick international sanctions unlikely but perhaps buying time while China quietly leans on its unpredictable, nuclear-armed neighbor.
As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts Sunday, tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied in their capital, clapping their hands, pumping their fists and shouting slogans against South Korea and America, according to video footage from APTN in Pyongyang.
South Korea has taken punitive measures against the North since a team of international investigators said this month that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine tore apart and sank the warship Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 sailors. North Korea vehemently denies attacking the ship and has warned that the South is risking war by attempting to punish it.
Beijing didn’t appear ready to support possible action in the U.N. Security Council against North Korea, its longtime ally. But Wen’s closing remarks at Sunday’s meeting seemed to signal that it was becoming more engaged in the crisis.
“The urgent task for the moment is to properly handle the serious impact caused by the Cheonan incident, gradually defuse tensions over it and avoid possible conflicts,” Wen said.
Beijing has long tried to mediate disputes between the Koreas, and it often likes to maintain an appearance of neutrality. The Cheonan sinking poses an awkward challenge for China, which is under pressure to go along with sanctions but wants to maintain its friendship with North Korea, an unpredictable buffer state whose collapse could cause instability on a long Chinese border.
China’s unwillingness to criticize Pyongyang now might mean it’s trying to use quiet negotiations to convince North Korea to come clean on the ship attack, one of the South’s worst military losses since the Korean War in the 1950s.
If the ship sinking makes it to the United Nations, it’s possible China will support sanctions like it did last year when the global body punished Pyongyang for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But it also could make sanctions impossible as a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council.